Going from Zürich to Heidelberg by train, Freiburg looked a lot nicer when going past it northwards than it seemed going southwards.
The route required I change train at Manheim. Manheim station is far less commercial than the other city stations I’ve been to on this trip. In that regard, it almost felt like a British station. Manheim itself looks heavily industrialized, so I don’t think I’ll miss out if I don’t explore it.
Heidelberg is pretty. There are many bicycles here, often locked to themselves rather than to fences and bike racks, which implies low fear of crime than I’m used to in the UK.
On the walk from the station to the hotel I saw a motorcycle driving on the cycle path, something I’ve only otherwise seen in The Netherlands; I passed signs pointing to asparagus and potato without explanation… curiously followed by signs for asparagus and strawberries.
Surprisingly, a car used the bicycle lane to skip a queue and turn right. Very un-stereotypical for Germany. (I’ve since learned that the German word for someone who crosses the road without waiting for a green light is “Außlander” (foreigner), and while I don’t know how facetious they were being, it felt correct).
North of the university, and close to my hotel, there were large open farms; think allotments but without any barriers. Presumably this is what the signs for strawberries, potatoes and asparagus were for, thought I have only seen the strawberries so far.
The university is pleasant; while it has plenty of dilapidated Brutalist buildings, many are covered in vines that make them look much nicer. Some of the nearby buildings — I’m not clear if they’re university or not — are much more modern. All look appealing.
The river has a large dam with a footbridge above it; the power and ferocity of the water flowing under the dam is terrifying to behold, even though it’s not even particularly tall — 4m difference in water level, I would guess.
I continued to be surprised by how many vegetarian options there are here. There’s so much good stuff!
One thing you don’t get from pictures is the smell of a place; and even in person, I often find I only notice it when it changes — when the UK suffered petrol shortages after truckers blockaded refineries in protest against taxes, the air quality massively improved, but I only noticed the improvement not the previous poor quality, and I didn’t notice it get worse again.
There is a cycle path south of the train station, just far enough away to be blocked from sight by buildings, where the air smells so much fresher and cleaner that I can almost imagine I’m in the wilderness, not the city centre. I wish I could fully describe what this place smelled like, but I never built up a good olfactory vocabulary.
There are some Arabic signs here and there, and I’ve seen far more black people living in Heidelberg than in Zürich. (Alas, between my notes and this being years later, I’m not sure if I meant “black” as in sub-saharan African decent or in the colloquial sense it has in the UK that also encompasses northern African, Middle-Eastern, and significant parts of the Indian subcontinent. Sorry about that — just as Posh Person Privilege means I don’t think to make note of which football team a person supports, White Privilege means I don’t really notice fine details of race unless it gets spelled out for me.)
The old city (Altstadt on OpenStreetMap) is a similar quaint style to the old city in Zurich, but without such dense crowds. It is full of old reddish stone and cobbled roads.
Heidelberg is a small-yet-pleasant place, although though I would recommend staying away from the immediate vicinity of the railway station. On that thought, perhaps I misjudged Utrecht earlier on this trip, having seen it only from passing through the station?
German vending machines sometimes stock condoms — Something I’ve never seen in the UK, and I suspect I will never see in the USA.
When I left for the next stop on the trip, I once again changed at Mannheim. The entrance hall of Mannheim station looks better than the rest of it, but I’m still not going to regret missing the chance to explore a city that seems dominated by such large industrial buildings.
I definitely recommend a break in Heidelberg to anyone who likes relaxed, historic, or close-(ish)-to-nature environments.
Frankfurt to Zürich is hilly, and as I approached the border between Germany and Switzerland, the feel of the countryside out of the train windows changed — still nice, just different. Basel Bad has, if anything, more graffiti than any German city I’ve seen, but a significant fraction of it is very high quality. To my surprise, and against the stereotype I had of the country, Basel Switzerland also has graffiti.
Some passengers on the train are speaking Italian.
I saw a large ugly cooling tower (why do people hate wind turbines when this is the alternative?), an oriental temple (Buddhist?) looking out of place near a (Lidl supermarket?), and churches are more recognisable here than in Germany…either that or Germany has less churches than I thought. There is lots of graffiti here too — which, given the Swiss reputation, is even more of a surprise than it was in a border city like Basel — and a mixture of steep green hillsides (some with pretty houses) and utilitarian construction zones. I had just passed Aarau station while writing this, and wondered if I would later be able to find images of the temple and the cooling tower; the cooling tower I could not find, but Google Street View reveals the temple.
The train went on; we passed a three story wooden building, then a bona fide castle-on-a-hilltop.
I was staying with a friend who lives just south of Zürich itself, so transferred to a local train at the city centre; the main station is enormous, multi-level, filled with shops (of course), and easy to get lost in.
My host has told me, to my surprise, that Swiss trains can be late, and apparently this is quite common in peak times.
Zürich city centre
First thought? “If Budapest were not so poor, it could have looked like this”.
Second thought, as I walked further from the train station, seeing the styles changed and became more… boring, samey, like all other cities. There was chewing gum ground into the pavement, a street pizza (didn’t see any of those in Germany!), roadworks, pedestrians jumping red lights, angy cars honking their horns. It was all quite conventional at that point, though fortunately such things were very limited and further wandering showed me better things very quickly afterwards.
Swiss (and German) pedestrian crossings are different from British ones: The German crossings seem to allow drivers to turn right through a red light, provided they give way to pedestrians (I don’t know if that’s official or just what everyone does in practice, after all the official UK speed limit is often exceeded by 10 mph if there aren’t any speed cameras); The Swiss lights explicitly signal green for cars and pedestrians, or at least some of them do.
Police and (doctor/ambulance) emergency vehicles are fluorescent orange and white.
As mentioned, I’m staying at a friend’s flat. It has a communal laundry room which is surprisingly small for the building size, and local norms require you to wipe down the washing machine door after use. There’s a large empty room next to it, which I assume is for drying clothes without using the tumble dryer.
The flat is spacious by British standards, but correspondingly expensive. It’s up a hill on the same lake as Zürich, but about 5-10 minutes to Zürich HB by train.
Swiss shops close early, very early by British standards — the local corner shop will not be open at 20:50, whereas British ones are often open until 22:00 or 23:00. Garbage bags are restricted items, sold over the counter rather than off the shelf.
Post boxes have what looks like instructions on how to print your own (QR code) stamps. Home deliveries seem to actually occur at a time when you are likely to be in.
Public transport is a bunch of zones, but not like London. The zones of London are rings, the zones of Zürich are patches that could well have been the old cities and downs before urban sprawl turned them into a conurbation. The closest to a “single” ticket is one that covers you for an hour for a specific number of zones, while the closest to “return” tickets cover you for 24 hours on a set of zones.
That other people may use any of German, French and Italian is somewhat stressful for me, as I find my poor grasp of the languages an embarrassment (I have GCSE grade D in French, the equivalent of GCSE grade B in German (from Duolingo, self-tested with old GCSE past papers), and I never got very far with Italian on Duolingo.
On the outside of public toilets there are maps of the nearby public toilets, which is convenient. Less convenient is when they cost 1 CHF, although that’s not a universal fee.
Everything is expensive here. It’s a bit like the price shock I had coming back to England from Kenya, even though it’s a much smaller difference (Kenya price shock was being charged more by a single ride in a UK airport taxi than all of the taxis combined from a week in Nairobi).
I wasn’t close enough to the lake to see how clear it was, but the rivers and streams in and out of the lake are very clear by British standards.
I’ve just seen a watering can being filled by one of the public water fountains. Later, a man filling a water bottle from one — I’m glad that’s normal, as I had done just that earlier in the day! (First time here as an adult, so I don’t know what locals consider ‘common sense’. It’s harder than it seems when it’s your own ‘common sense’).
There’s a street lined with a multitude of different flags. I only noticed two that matched each other, but there were so many I may have missed some. The street had a stone and photography shop, with 1200 CHF drones and 11,000 CHF camera lenses.
It took a long, long time before I found a real supermarket and not just brand shops and small corner shops — not that they didn’t exist, there was one just over the railway line from my friend’s flat and another around the corner from the railway station, but compared to the UK they’re hard to find (and both are, unlike the US, easy to reach on foot). The one near the station is a co-op, but a very different branding than the place of the same name in the UK or the (also mutually unrelated) place of the same name in the USA. Amongst other things, it sells savoury croissants with seeds. I had to get some chocolate, because that is one of the things Switzerland is famous for (that, and the other things being watches which I can’t afford; clocks and Alpenhorns which I don’t want; and what use would a tourist have with a Swiss bank account?). It turned out that one doesn’t need to break Swiss chocolate into squares, it comes pre-divided!
I met another beggar who was grateful to receive a bottle of water. Interesting. A man this time, but just like the (woman) in Frankfurt, my guess is he’s a refugee from the middle east. (As an aside: I’m editing this post about two years after the event, and it’s disappointing that “refugee from the middle east” is still a political issue).
An advert on a giant public screen showed a man on a skateboard being pulled along by a husky.
At the train station, everyone waiting to board leaves much more room for those disembarking than I have seen in Germany or Britain (I wasn’t enough paying attention to remember in any other country).
The Swiss are much chattier than the Germans, in that (excluding beggars) three strangers talked to me today and none talked to me in Germany. The next day, they continued to be chatty and generally helpful when I looked like the lost tourist that I was — replying to my broken German in English, in many cases.
I found my first broken Swiss urinal in the same WC as my first broken Swiss hand dryer. The Swiss concern for good function and cleanliness has turned out to be oddly specific.
There is an advert by the side of the road that turned out to be for a brothel, but that style of advert in the UK would imply a casino (the imagery was sexually implicit rather than explicit, compared to the UK where casinos do similar yet lap dancing clubs and sex shops seem to always have plain adverts and exteriors).
The plants, hedgerows, litter, graffiti, power lines, buildings and roads could easily all be British (with the exception of road signs and left-vs-right side driving); the hills are different (like Wales only more so), but flip a photo left to right and you might not know which country it is.
Plenty of red light running by pedestrians and cyclists alike, which underscores how rare that is in Germany. One instance of horse manure on the pavement so far, which says something about how close nature is to residential life here.
Just walked past a fairly unremarkable Microsoft office, at the almost-but-not-quite funny number 356.
It’s remarkable how many different architectural styles there are here, and also remarkable that they are geographically associated. No random mishmash here, but one place screams “England”, another “Budapest”, another is novel to me and I shall call it “Swiss”.
The statue of Ganymede has been decorated with clothes, nipple tape, and tin foil since I saw it two days ago.
I’ve found a vegetarian hot dog shop. It uses literal translation, so it says “Heiss Hund” — a strange name for the food, when you think about it.
I have finally found a single sex shop in this city, and it’s tiny, but the dildos can be seen from outside. My guess is that the Swiss are slightly more sexually liberal than the English, but much less than the Germans. A short walk and I saw one of the famous painted cows, a little further and I saw another sex shop with all the goods on open display. Perhaps the shops are as zoned as the architecture, or perhaps it’s just Hotelling’s law in action.
(I know, I know, the Europe By Rail series isn’t complete, but I have notes for that, this needs to be written before it fades from my memory).
JFK AKA WTF NYC I-95
The weather was good on the day I arrived, giving me excellent views of NYC as I landed, and of the USA-Canada border before that (at least, I assume that is what I saw, an avenue of cut down trees in right sort of place). America is a place of wide roads and detached houses, of on-street parking/turning circles that would contain entire blocks of flats (and associated parking) in the UK.
Also golf courses. Lots of golf courses. What is it with the New York area and golf courses?
When I landed at JFK airport, I spent ages waiting to pass through border control. I didn’t need to, but the explanation of why I didn’t need to happened while I was exhausted near the end of a 7 hour flight. Still, it didn’t matter much: thanks to NYC traffic, my partner Sadie arrived at the airport about 30 minutes after I’d collected my bags.
The hotel was pleasant enough, but unremarkable. Small gym, serve your own breakfast, waffle maker, breakfast hall had a TV — just what I’ve come to expect from my first two trips.
My first two trips to the USA were to SFO. Those times, I wasn’t used to how vast and empty states could be, but this time round I wasn’t used to how small they could be. The trip through Connecticut was slow and dull, as the morning gave us torrential rain which left pools of water on the I-95 large enough that the freeway was, in several places, reduced down to a single lane: the hard shoulder. Despite that, by the afternoon we had crossed two state borders (NY-CT, CT-RI) and were half way across Rhode Island.
We stopped for a pizza for lunch near the middle of Connecticut. One of the things that continues to surprise me about the USA is how expensive food is. Petrol and diesel may be cheap, but… wow, that doesn’t make up for the food (let alone big expenses like the USA’s infamously overpriced medical insurance). For restaurants and supermarkets both, American food feels twice the price for half the quality of the UK equivalent — the quality of Lidl and the price of Waitrose. (Nothing against either of those stores in the UK, one’s very cheap and the other is very nice, but the combination is not one that reflects well on the USA).
The only really noteworthy thing I realised in (or was it near?) Connecticut was understanding why the whole area is known as New England: its green foliage and slightly mossy rocks are very familiar to anyone from England.
We met up with Sadie’s aunt and uncle in Providence, Rhode Island. They lent us their car (well, her mother’s, Sadie’s grandmother’s), the quality of which also surprised me: ancient, falling to bits. Not as poor a condition as the “friend of the family” taxi in Nairobi, but still shockingly bad by British standards. This is not a poor family, yet the car had multiple warning lights every time it was switched on, and the key literally fell apart one time we tried to take it out of the ignition. Still, the car got us around and didn’t break down on us.
Providence seems like a nice place. Poor, but nice. Everyone was cheerful and friendly, despite the slightly run-down look of the Federal Hill district and of the street we stayed in just on the other side of the Woonasquatucket River.
Despite the outward similarity of New England to Ye Olde England, the temperatures are much higher. In the UK, there might be two days in any three years where the weather is hot enough to benefit from air conditioning in your home, every day in New England was that hot. (Of course, in winter it normally goes below freezing, which is rarer, although not unheard of, in the UK).
In Boston, we stayed with Sadie’s grandmother. The house was an old wooden structure, three floors including the occupied roof area, and elevated from the ground around it by about half a story. There was almost no lighting, and as with the car, it felt very run-down for someone with her wealth.
Central Boston is a lovely place. Didn’t go into the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum because it was too expensive, and unfortunately forgot to plan a trip to see the USS Constitution despite meaning to. I had planned to buy a teabag and borrow a fishing rod and a teacup and film my own Boston Tea Party, but in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t — such a cliché.
We did get to see the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which was crowded and very American: lots of sugary baked goods, not much sign of fruit or vegetables.
The subway line between home and city centre (“so that’s what ‘downtown’ means!”) felt as if it was used by rough people, and I didn’t feel safe on it, although how much of that is just culture shock I can’t tell. (As an aside, for all the complaints I hear about the London Underground, it is joint top with Paris and Berlin as one of the nicest metro systems I’ve used; Boston, BART, and NYC metros all feel like nice people aren’t supposed to use them, while Budapest sits between them, stuck in an 1890s time capsule).
We met up with one of Sadie’s Green Party associates, and he walked us around Cambridge MA. As I’m living in (close enough) the original Cambridge, it wasn’t too impressive. Still, I did get a few curious photos of American Cambridge and first noticed a Greek motif that kept popping up throughout the trip.
When the friend brought us back to Boston (i.e. across the bridge), we went to the oddly named “Legal Sea Foods” (what’s the alternative, illegal sea foods?)
Tappens Beach and the closed rock
Rhode Island has a lot of coast for its size. Sadie’s family took me to Tappens Beach, a perfectly good beach with some large rocks (shown in photo; watch out for the poison ivy), and one of those rocks has two diving boards bolted to it. Everyone except me jumped in. I almost miss being that fearless.
Manomet seems to be a place for rich people to have their holiday homes, and for poor people to service their tourism holiday needs. I had fun, mainly because I was staying at Sadie’s aunt’s holiday home. That side of the family joined us after we’d been relaxing there a few hours, playing on the trampoline and preparing dinner for everyone (not at the same time).
When we saw Manomet bay, it was wonderfully foggy. We could see an arch of beach, a few fishing boats anchored in the bay, but no horizon.
The bay itself seems to be known as the one place in America where July 4th is celebrated on July 3rd. To quote Wikipedia:
Tradition dictates that these bonfires be extinguished by the rising tide, so depending on the moon, the festivities may extend well into the night, or end relatively early.
I had a chance to try archery for the first time as an adult. While it was fun, bows and arrows are rather less potent weapons than I had been led to believe by fiction: I was firing shooting into a rotting wooden door that had been taken off its hinges and taken to the back of the garden, drawing the string as far back as I could, from a distance of about three meters, and still a third of the arrows bounced off or just plain missed, and about a third of those that did get stuck in the door managed to go through holes between planks that made up the structure. Also notable, it’s easy to hold the bow mostly drawn, but the last few centimetres have most of the difficulty; they are also the most important for power. Also-also notable, arrows fall off the side of the bow very easily.
Confusingly, going between New York and Newark by train, you get on at New York Pennsylvania Station and get off at Newark Pennsylvania Station.
If you can, use the metro line instead: the PATH red line is about half the price of the rail ticket (the main difference is that unlike the train, the main terminal is the World Trade Center). We didn’t know this, and ended up getting one ticket and then the other.
We went to Newark for an event that Sadie was very interested in and was thrilled by the chance to attend, although it’s probably not one to be discussed on a blog like this. While she did that, I explored the city centre: It’s a nice enough city, although it is really surprising to a Brit like me how clearly racially segregated it all is, and how hurt African Americans are: signs with comments along the lines of “don’t tell me you love my culture when you hate me”, that sort of thing.
It was much easier to walk around Newark city than Cupertino, even though Newark had wider roads, because the drivers were much more pedestrian-aware.
Oh, so much stuff.
(Gee, what a surprise!)
The hotel was tiny in comparison to the one just across the water in Newark. If you’re looking to be a tourist, the Newark Hilton is a) connected to the the station, b) as cheap as the cheapest New York hotel that is actually a hotel and not a hostel, and c) the PATH metro is only a few dollars per person per day.
Central park is huge. I mean really huge. It’s large enough that a third of the way in from the side, you don’t feel like you’re in a city any more.
Oh, and there’s a castle in the park: Belvedere Castle, a folly that’s served as a weather station, amongst other things.
The subway (metro, not food chain) is hot, loud, rushed. The crowding level was surprising: it was more crowded near our hotel (80th Street) than it was in Lower Manhattan.
To try and fit as much sightseeing in as I could with my limited time, I took the subway to the South Ferry station and walked as far up as I could.
I saw the famous Bull, along with the attendant crowd of other tourists also taking photos of it. It’s just a statue of a bull. There’s probably some irony about a loudly (even if not strictly officially) Christian nation like the USA having a statue of a bull as a tourist attraction, but there we go.
Next up was the 9/11 memorial. It’s both spectacular and refined. Two large square holes in the ground, waterfalls on all sides flowing to an inner pool, both which have a smaller square hole in their middles for the water to drain into in another four-sided waterfall. All surrounded by the names of the deceased, carved into stone (metal?) topping a wall around the waterfalls. Of course, being America, there was also a poster next to it advertising compensation lawyers with the text “9/11 isn’t over”.
NY City Hall: There’s a public park that looks like it should connect to the grounds, but the hall is closed to the public. The park has some unusual artwork in it, including a giant cardboard cutout of some bacteria.
Broadway: Not that broad. Lots of shops, lots of roadworks. I got my cities mixed up and thought, for some reason, that Broadway rather than Hollywood had the walk of fame with the stars’ names in the sidewalk.
Union Square Park: Nothing particularly special about this one. Typical American scale, typical American city architecture around it. Big sign that didn’t show up too well on my camera. I totally failed to appreciate the art, and assumed the sign was something financial like USA national debt (although it was too big even for that), and that the only real art was the weird ripple with gold and lines to the right of the numbers.
Flatiron Building: Freaky shape, nice to have finally seen it in person and not just photographs.
Madison Square Park: There was some sort of event on, with food stalls. I couldn’t buy anything, having spent my last $3 of cash the previous day in Central Park.
Bryant Park: behind NY Public Library, it’s a nice, pleasant-looking place. I was in a bit of a rush to meet Sadie for dinner by this point so I didn’t go in, but it had a good vibe to it. It, combined with the surrounding skyscrapers, had a bit of a Singapore vibe to it.
Time Square, Broadway: Surprisingly well lit, given the sun had yet to set. Very crowded. Street sellers of “my band’s latest CD”. Lively, wealthy… and yet, another place that felt like poverty was just around the corner.
Somewhere along that walk, although I didn’t take a note of where, there was a public protest against infant circumcision. Americans reading this may be surprised to learn that quite a lot other nations basically don’t do circumcision: from a British perspective, for example, circumcision is a strange weird custom done by foreigners.
The next day was the day of my flight home, but I had a chance to see a little more before the airport. Just across the road from the new World Trade Center building and the 9/11 memorial is a site, I guess it might be a shopping mall, called Brookfield Place, whose main feature is the “Winter Garden”. The Winter Garden has 16 palm trees and feels neither wintery nor gardeny.
The train from Hannover to Frankfurt was pleasant enough, but all the seats were taken. The countryside we passed was mostly beautiful rolling hills, and just a few ugly man-made hills.
Frankfurt Hbf itself instantly reminded me of Paris Gare du Nord (the Eurostar terminal). Different, but somehow very similar.
There were news broadcast on a giant screen, I couldn’t read it but the pictures were showing floods. There had been a bit of rain the previous day in Hannover, with more was forecast for today, but the only rain I had seen by this point of the day was in and near Frankfurt itself; the route was almost completely dry.
There was a book, sold in one of the shops of Frankfurt Hbf, with the title “Die Again”, and I wondered if the title was in English or in German. I never did pick it up to find out.
The shops in city station are very multicultural: In the station area I saw African and Asian, American, German (and the Germans seem to like pizza and pasta the way the British like fish ‘n chips and Indian); next to my hotel there was “Bosnische Spezialitären Čevabdžinica Sarajevo Imbiss”, and then two Arabic places with names I can’t even write. There are two major shopping malls, the main (I think) mall, “MyZeil”, is a fantastic piece of architecture, and the info points inside it are trilingual English-German-Chinese. Thai, Iranian, Mediterranean, Malaysian and other shops and restaurants on the road between the train station and the city centre.
The city centre is surrounded by a narrow strip of greenery, public parks and so forth, that look on the map as if they were the former city walls.
“The city centre itself has a lovely atmosphere”, I wrote while walking through it. Of course, having written that, once I got back to the train station the escalator had stopped moving and smelled of urine (albeit nowhere near as bad as the smell in Portsmouth). There are less beggars here than either Berlin or Hannover, at least at first glance. There were many skyscrapers that felt like skyscrapers, but without the oppressive-bombastic feel of those in San Jose, San Francisco, or Sacramento, without the cramped feel of London.
The famous Euro.
The whole district is quite small.
While in Frankfurt, I think I finally figured out why I prefer German blocks of flats to British ones: the outsides are just cleaner. In Britain, a significant fraction of flats (certainly the larger blocks in city centres) have ugly stains under under every window and every external pipe, whereas the German ones are either completely clean or covered in a perfectly even layer of dirt that hides the fact it’s even dirt — the British stains looks like a sewage accidents in comparison.
Other than the handful of skyscrapers, Frankfurt seems to be mostly 4-7 story buildings, but it still feels friendly in a way that central London, which is about the same vertically, never is. And in comparison to America? A three lane by six lane cross-roads felt safe to cross here, compared to the feeling of risking life and limb crossing from one corner of the two main roads of the Apple Maps icon to the other.
The only emergency fire/ambulance vehicles I’ve seen so far in Germany have used a fluorescent orange and white colour scheme. Looks like Ambulances are branded by the hospital they’re associated with, but I’m not sure. Seeing them made me realise that if I were to move to Germany, I would need health insurance (UK has “national insurance” which is a tax, and taxes pay for healthcare amongst other things), so perhaps the effective tax rate is more complicated than I thought. (Well of course it will be complicated, why ever did I imagine it might be simple?)
I had to read a news story about the German far-right political group AfD to notice this point, but while Britain has plenty of visible Muslims and mosques, I’ve not noticed a single mosque in Germany for all the Muslims I’ve seen while walking around the cities. A relatively small number of churches, too, now I think about it.
Frankfurt Hbf has so many platforms that three streets face the entrance, parallel with the tracks. One night’s jaunt took me back through the southern street, Münchener Straße; the next day’s walk took me back through the northern street, Taunusstraße.
Taunusstraße is the red light and casino district. Plymouth has a red light district that I’ve walked through without even knowing it was one until the street was named as such in the local news. Amsterdam is famous for its red light district, but again it was so easy to miss that when the naked women in its glass shop fronts remain stationary, they look like shop mannequins and it just feels like any other part of Amsterdam (that said, when the women tire of standing still and change pose just as you walk past, it’s as if a mannequin has come to life next to you).
Taunusstraße just feels seedy — nothing explicitly upsetting, just tacky, gaudy, and unsophisticated, like the rides of a travelling funfair.
As I was writing up for the day, I heard some shouting on the street outside, and the deep rumble of a motorbike whose only purpose is to make the owner feel big — so, just like Britain. Overall, I think Frankfurt is like a good British city, not as different or as nice (by my tastes) as Hannover, Berlin, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, etc., which is worth knowing and the entire point of this trip. Score!
Fire brigades have their own emergency doctors with their own emergency vehicles. That’s something you don’t see in the UK.
The train from Berlin to Hamburg was straightforward enough. We passed lots of nice countryside, woodland, and tiny hamlets by the side of the railway line. The odd urban area that we passed through had more “refugees welcome” graffiti, just like Berlin. I saw a power line that terminated in a building about the same size (both height and ground area) as a normal pylon, painted yellow and complete with a lone door at its base. Many of the fields we passed had another kind of tower — a wooden lookout, one story off the ground, with a ladder and a roof.
My German isn’t good enough to buy things if the person at the till says anything other than “yes” or naming a price, which forces me to revert to English. This is frustrating.
By the time I had arrived, Hamburg had run out of (affordable) hotels, the only things that remained were over €200 per night. Thanks to the flexible travel power of my Interrail Pass, I was able to go straight onward to Hannover without worrying about an extra ticket. I don’t get the feeling I’m missing much, the path of the railway makes the city of Hamburg look far more British than Berlin had, with only a few bits of interesting people-friendly architecture to shield against the post industrial wasteland that reminds me so much of Portsmouth and Southampton on the south coast of the UK.
The first train station book store that I looked at in Hamburg had language guides for Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and what looked like Romanian. There were tourists maps to Denmark. That made me almost sad I had decided not to go to Denmark this time, but as Denmark hasn’t joined the Euro, as Euros were the only cash I had, and as I had been advised to make sure I had some form of backup payment (which later turned out to be very useful), Denmark really wasn’t going to happen on this trip.
On the train, the next station was announced as “Hamburg Hamburg”. A later stop was announced as something like “Bad Bressen”, but a Google search doesn’t show any place with that name. The “Bad” prefix is common on Germany, it means “Bath” in the same sense as the British city of Bath.
Hannover seemed much nicer than Hamburg even at first glance. I did wonder how much of that was the weather, how much is the lesser crowding (Hamburg station was very crowded), how much was it’s familiar layout, and how much was the fact that the nearest hotel to Hannover train station is a third of the price of the cheapest available in the entire city when I checked at Hamburg? (Of course, by the time I had set up WiFi in the Hannover hotel room and was able to double check, I got a different and much cheaper answer from the price comparison website than had been offered a few hours earlier 😛 ).
The first night was little more than: chill, relax, and go to the local supermarket — a windowless affair on two floors of a building fairly close to the hotel. It gave me the most bizarrely artificial feeling; not malicious like the artifice of a casino, but alien, soulless, creepy, efficient. The upper floor was accessed by a moving walkway in the middle rather than the edge, making the place feel almost endless.
The next day, I started exploring Hannover properly. The hotel has another new-to-me kind of toilet, this time the flush mechanism needs to be switched off manually once you’ve decided enough water has gone through.
After just one minute on the other side of the train station to my hotel, I realised the place wasn’t just familiar, I had passed through the city years ago, going between an airport and Magdeburg. I’d even bought pizza from the very pizza place under the station that had seemed familiar the night before. To the south (ish) is a church with a giant inverted pentagram on the tower, and a multilevel pedestrianised shopping district that was disappointingly similar to British ones. The zone has a “Euro shop” where everything costs €1 (and has slightly better stuff than a British £1 shop despite the exchange rates), and there is also a sex district in one run-down corner (I guessed lap dances and similar, but my German isn’t that good and it later turned out that continental Europe is much more relaxed about this sort of thing than the UK).
There is a lot of cycling here. I’ve not seen any beggars so far. Pedestrians seem more likely to obey the red lights on crossings than in the UK, but that may just be because the roads with explicit pedestrian crossings are wider than typical British streets (one lane each way is common in the UK, but these are all multi-lane). Berlin had no litter that I saw, but I didn’t realise that until I got to Hannover and found myself automatically picking up random litter and taking it to the next bin I passed (something I often do in the UK, a habit my mum gave me probably by accident when she got me to help her clear out a stream strewn with litter in my home town as a young child).
There is a vast lake in Hannover — at least, vast by the standards I’m used to, it’s nothing compared to the Great Lakes or even Lake Zurich, but I don’t recall anything this size in a British city. I saw more graffiti and more litter as I walked around the lake. At the far end of it I saw an older lady with grey hair riding a bicycle and wearing an “XCOM the enemy unknown” T-shirt. At the south end, I decided to go away from the lake to get more of a feel for the built-up parts of the city, and that took me along a foot-and-cycle route that keeps pedestrians on the North and cyclists on the South, separated by a small hedge, which is a nice touch (British foot-and-cycle routes are often separated by a white line, and sometimes not even that).
The next road, Hildesheimer Str., is green but fairly samey. I realised on that road that Apotheke, Bibliothike, Spielotheke, all shared a root word. Also, Kindergarten is literally “Kid(s?) Garden”.
There was more sexually explicit imagery on public display; this time a magazine, visible outside the shop selling it, showing multiple naked breasts on the front cover. It’s odd how ladies’ breasts are seen as sexual, while men’s are not, but there we are.
Through its window, Hannover city library looks just like any British library.
I finally encountered some beggars! They seem better off than the ones in Berlin. Enough to be scary, actually. But I didn’t take enough notes to remind myself why when I wrote this up over a month later.
The next day, I explored to the North-east of my hotel. There’s an enormous inner-city woodland in the far corner of the Hannover-Mitte quarter of the city. It was very pleasant, but had a slight feeling of familiarity that confused me. I know I visited Germany as a kid, did my mum take me to Hannover at some point in that? I don’t know. Regardless, it’s wonderful to have a large peaceful area with many benches in which to sit down and read. It made me wish that British cities had more large patches of dense woodland within them.
For all the German reputation for loving meat, they have a lot of vegetarian and vegan food stores. Some of it good, some of it mediocre — just like the UK. I recall the British have the nickname “Roastbeef” in France, yet the British also have many good options for vegetarian and vegan food, so perhaps meaty stereotypes are over-stated and out-dated.
I finally saw a single cyclist jumping a red light! He checked it was safe, then crossed the road. Up until this point, everyone else — pedestrian and cyclist alike — has been fastidiously obedient of the lights, and there are an enormous number of cyclists in Germany (by British standards) and the clearly labeled cycle paths go everywhere that I had gone on foot.
Hannover, like Berlin, has both a metro and an underground system. I’ve not used either, but the rails of the former and the entrances to the latter are easily seen. The combination of good public transport and good cycle infrastructure is probably one of the main reasons why German cities feel so much nicer than British ones (the graffiti and beggar problems appear to be worse in Germany than the UK, while the litter is roughly the same, so it’s certainly not any of those things).
The city, like many British cities, contains a ruined church. Presumably a burned out wreck from the second world war.
I saw more beggars, including a the first Muslim woman beggar; and one man slumped and stationary against a wall, lighter and tobacco bag in hand. He might well have been dead, but I didn’t want to investigate, either possibility may have been traumatic.
That evening, music poured through my bedroom window. First it was Indian, then a marching band, jazz, then many more pieces whose genres I don’t recognise.
Sunday morning. Hannover is covered in thick cloud, and it’s raining. So dark and gloomy it feels like twilight even though sunrise was just over 5 hours ago, at 05:06. It’s good for me that the rain has coincided with my feet’s need to recover, unfortunately more rain is forecast for tomorrow. The music I first heard last night has continued today, a quick venture into town for food suggests it’s a cultural festival in Andreas-Hermes-Platz. I have no idea if it will still be there tomorrow, my last day in Hannover (a half day at that) before I journey to Frankfurt.
My next trip had me wandering Hannover in a new direction, to the North west and past the university, past the aquarium and Herrenhausen Palace before I turned back. I saw fly-posted stickers on streetlights advertising a Facebook group for LGBT refugees. In English rather than German or Arabic. I’m so lucky my native language is the lingua-Franca of the world.
There were more erotic stores. The outside of these shops are like the inside of British adult stores, which makes me wonder what the insides are like, but this isn’t the time to check them out.
I also saw the first German pedestrian jumping a red light.
There are cigarette vending machines on the footpaths. Well, one of them at least. And a small tractor driving down the street — I’m used to that in small countryside villages in England, but this is near a major city centre.
Ooh, a German flag! First time I’ve seen one flying here, I think. For any Americans surprised by my surprise, Europe doesn’t seem to fly national flags anything like as much as you do. Most of the British would only care about flag burning because of the smoke, although I wouldn’t dare assume anything either way about the rest of the continent.
Walking further along the route, I passed some more flags that I don’t recognise, then another German flag. All were in what might be allotments, but there are many of what look like single room cottages — too big to be sheds, too small to be real homes. Student houses, perhaps?
I found Quorn for sale! But not in every supermarket. “Rewe” has it, I’m not sure what Rewe would be the equivalent of in the UK.
I never did check Andreas-Hermes-Platz in the end. Next stop, Frankfurt.
Starting just on the German side of the German-Dutch border. There was no announcement, but there’s something a little different about the surroundings — not enough for me to put my finger on most of it, but what I can explicitly see is the station platforms seem lower, the front licence plates of the cars we pass are white (the licence plates were yellow in Rotterdam).
The train has stopped. Two of the American passengers are flirting with each other, with occasional petting. And then they started whispering about drug use and popping pills from a blister pack. While drinking beer. The train eventually started moving slowly, but didn’t get much over human speed before it stopped again, albeit stopping for less time than it too to type that, and then the ticket inspectors started walking down the carriage; two inspectors, one for the left and one for the right.
The flirty possibly-American couple move on to talking about child free lifestyles. Now I think the guy studying Quantum mechanics at Delft is European and only the woman (possibly a supervisor of one or more of the other students) is American.
There has just been an announcement of 10-15 minutes of delays due to rail works — so much for German efficiency. I’m not sure if that’s including or excluding the earlier pause in our motion.
We’d stopped at a station called Empel-Rees, which gave me a location to double-check when I wrote this up.
Another text from the phone company. Either they send reminders every day, or they send reminders every time you enter a new country.
Quick transfer at Duisburg thanks to the delays. The flirting couple had left “to explore the train” and not returned by the time I disembarked. I assume they were shagging in the toilets.
The station at Duisburg, like Rotterdam, has a design pattern that I have only seen in Europe. A lot of platforms (13 in this case) all leading down to a lower level, perpendicular to the platforms and filled with shops and cafés, and the entrances to the station are at opposite ends of the lower level. It’s a better use of space than I’ve seen anywhere in the UK, even at the larger London stations that do actually have shops.
Germany has a lot of graffiti along this railway line. I can’t explain why, but I like Germany even despite that. Perhaps it’s the familiarity — I’ve been here more often than any other foreign country I’ve visited.
Going through Essen, and of course the first thing I noticed was the food advert. (Linguistic pun there, for the non-German speakers amongst you).
An announcement says the seat reservations don’t work on this train. Interesting, they didn’t work on the previous train either. This time, not all the signs are illuminated. The WiFi, which I’d been hoping to use to keep in touch with my friend in Berlin? It only works if I pay an absurd amount, more than an expensive PAYG mobile provider from the UK roaming in Germany, and much more than my own PAYG provider), so I’m not using that. The (free) map on the WiFi sign-up site was fairly neat though — live updated with OpenStreetMap as a base and local points of interest for all the places the train passes through.
There is a smoking area on one of the platforms we passed. Smoking has been forbidden on British stations for so long I had forgotten that was a thing that could happen.
Dortmund has a Deusches Fussball Museum visible from the station. No prizes for guessing what that translates to. I kept falling asleep from there until somewhere between Bielefeld and Berlin, but I was just about awake enough at Bielefeld to take a photo and hear an announcement that the train was delayed due to a medical emergency. Three for three, so much for the British belief that the UK has the worst public transport in Europe — British rail looks normal now. We came up to a range of hills leading to Porta Westfalica with an interesting monument on the end of the range facing the town (presumably the Emperor William Monument), but the camera on the phone stopped working as I tried to take a photo. Fixed the camera with a reboot, but not in time, I should replace this device at some point…
A hermaphroditic 5-pointed star. That’s a novel thing for a rucksack.
Loud drunken singing from further down the train carriage, “Wir sind die Gewinner!”. Feels like England.
Berlin Central station is basically a 7 story shopping mall whose top and bottom floors are train lines going in perpendicular directions.
Alexanderplatz had homeless drunks begging ineffectually in English only. That was odd. Later I found out there was a football match that very evening, so they might have just been English and so drunk they seemed like homeless beggars.
Berlin public transport is very different to British public transport. In Berlin, you buy a ticket for a zone, stamp it yourself on the station before you board, then you can use it freely for as many trips as you like in that zone for the two hours after you stamped it. The same ticket works for all public transport: S-Bahn, U-Bahn, buses, trams and ferries.
Berlin advertising is also very different to British advertising. For example, Germans seem to be comfortable with sexually explicit cartoons for a public health campaign to beat HIV with condoms on the tram stops in the middle of the streets. Another example, one of the rotating billboards I passed is for “Dildo King”. In the UK, the most sexually explicit public adverts I can remember are blacked out window fronts labeled “adult shop”, bra adverts, and the occasional adult magazine.
I’m staying with a British friend who moved to Berlin for work. I’m not certain (because tax laws are hard enough when you speak a language natively), but it seems like Berlin doesn’t have anything like the British council tax system. For non British people, council tax is a fixed amount paid by every household to the local government and based on how valuable your house is estimated to be; it is paid by the occupants rather than the owners, and there are a few discounts (for example, students and kids don’t count as occupants and if there is only one occupant you get a 25% discount). The tax is typically in the range of £1,000 per year for cheap homes up to about £2,000 per year for expensive homes. Learning this made me realise how complex tax systems can be to compare, and it does see to partially offset Germany having a higher income tax rate than the UK. Germany also has a religious tax, which is opt-out and yet most people keep paying; an interesting observation worth remembering during discussion with people who believe tax is theft.
My friend took me to a local electronics store to buy a solar powered external battery for my phone. Everyone in the service sector speaks English, but I really do need to practice my German more if I live here. The self-charging battery cost €22 for 5 Ah, which will doubtless seem an excessive price in the near future as technology marches on. That reminds me, why do people write 5,000 mAh instead of 5 Ah? Fetishism for large numbers? In which case, why not 5,000,000 μAh? But that’s a discussion for a different time.
The buildings are large, but well spaced, with metro lines separating each direction of traffic on many major streets, and trees lining both major and minor streets. There are cycle paths on some pavements and some roadways. All the flats lining the streets seem to be five or six stories tall. In London these buildings and roads would be densely packed angry concrete monstrosities, in Sacramento and New York the buildings would be skyscrapers, in San Jose and Cupertino the roads would have twice as many lanes and three three times the width and no trams that I can recall from when I walked from one to the other.
The days pass and I get to explore this city in more depth, albeit slowly because my feet are still healing from the overlong walk in Dutch countryside. It’s Sunday today, and most of the shops are either shut it have limited hours (I’m not sure which). Despite that, the traffic is flowing heavily outside.
My host has said this is a relatively cheap area of the city, and the state of repair of the building fronts nearby reminded me of what I saw in Budapest (although the decay here is both far less severe and far less frequent, despite it being a cheap area of Berlin versus the most expensive street in Budapest!); if this is the cheap area, I wonder what the expensive areas look like?
A useful lesson from my host, “Die Fahrt” means any journey in a vehicle, not just a car, which can lead to interesting mistranslations — “We’re all «driving» to Berlin” / “OK, I’ll just take the train” / “Want to share our group ticket?”
There are some things you assume are universal, then you travel and find they’re not. Toilets, for example. Toilets are surprisingly varied by nation.
And if you ever visit Kenya, the toilet paper is often kept outside the stalls, so you have to get enough before you start.
My host told me that Berlin still makes regular use of chimney sweeps. Anywhere that uses domestic fireplaces would need chimney sweeps, but those disappeared in the UK sometime around them being banned in London for causing pea soup fog.
Berlin is beautiful, despite the smokers and the graffiti. There may be laws restricting smoking in some areas, but in practice Germany doesn’t have a smoking ban anything like the UK (where any public building or workplace could be fined for allowing it). Also, self service doesn’t mean what it does in the UK — in the UK “self service” is a buffet, while in Germany it’s “come to the counter to place your order”. Germany also has “self-clearing” café restaurants, where it’s up to you to take your plate back to the service people, while the UK only has that as an unspoken rule of canteens.
Berlin is vastly more open about sex than Britain. There’s a… shop, I guess one must call it… that advertises cruising and glory holes.
Just like Budapest, and unlike everything I remember of London, the flats here often have street level car-appropriate passages leading to off-street parking. Unlike both, there are a noticeable number of ancient looking cars still on the roads, there are lots of Smart cars, there are scooters parked on most footpaths, and the footpaths are easily as wide as the roadways including the parking as part of the roadway. Some, but not all, minor roads have pedestrianised entrances — motor vehicles can enter from the main road, but must give way to pedestrians and cyclists (who themselves are separated from both the road and the main part of the pedestrian pathway in many places).
I saw adverts for “The World of Cyberobics”, which sounds interesting, but I have no idea what it’s about as I have so many ad-blockers that to me their website is just the word “cyberobics” in the middle of the screen and nothing else.
There are quite a few beggars on the streets of Berlin. It feels like more than in London and less than in Budapest.
I tried to get a ticket for the tram line, but couldn’t figure out how to use the ticket machines at the station even when they were in English. Unfortunately a ticket tout then sold me an expired ticket and I didn’t realise (it would be plausibly real in the UK); fortunately nobody checked it (if they had, it would have been a €60 fine, I think). Being the sort of person I am, the moment I seriously suspected there was a problem, I got off and walked the rest of the way. Two days later I found out there are ticket machines on the trams (but not the S-Bahn, so don’t board those without a ticket). The onboard machines may only accept exact change, so be careful.
I suspect that if I published photos of some of the public artwork in Berlin, my blog would get deleted for content deemed adult in the state of American Puritanism. One spinning billboard has adverts for both “Fantasy Massage Studio” and “Kinderdentist”, which would lead to many letters from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells in the UK.
Aldi is branded differently here. Lidl has the same branding, but a different store layout. There are two different Aldi chains in Germany, and the split happened when two kids inherited the brand from their father and (according to Wikipedia) argued about what they should sell.
I’ve just noticed that the builders across the street are not wearing hard-hats. They would be turned away from the building site if they did that in England.
Germany has taken on a million refugees, compared to a few thousand by the UK, but looking at the graffiti (“Refugees willkommen” near the entrance to a supermarket) and the billboards, it feels like the numbers are the inverse of the rhetoric. Germany is looking out for the innocent victims of war and is glad to do so, while the UK moans and drags its feet and makes false complaints about the age and genders of the asylum seekers even after the famous photo of the drowned toddler on a beach had made it to the front page of our newspapers. I wonder now what the personalities of the other European nations is. Given how few refugees have been accepted by other countries, I am assuming Germany stands alone in being humane, but I cannot read newspapers other than in English and the odd German headline.
I saw a film where an apartment had a garbage chute. I didn’t realise those were a thing. The film theatre didn’t show any rating before the film, and the adverts were at a pleasant volume, both interesting differences from the UK.
Shopping and recycling: UK has “Chip and Pin”, and people will look at you funny if you try to sign instead; conversely in Berlin, Chip and Pin is the rarity. There are many multilingual cash machines. Plastic and glass bottles can be recycled at supermarkets for cash or a voucher for a discount on your next purchase.
Saw more beggars today. One was missing all his toes on one foot. Walking from Alexanderplatz to the Tiergarden, I was accosted by some girls with a petition for something to help the disabled, but I didn’t get to read it before a local shopkeeper shooed them away and threatened to call the police — but as “Polize” was the only word I understood, I have to just assume that they were a gang who used a good cause to cause trouble.
The route took me past some grand scale architecture, the sort of scale that is to an adult what normal architecture is to a kid. Somehow it was still nicer than the same thing in London — in Berlin it felt like it was just supposed to look nice, whereas the similar stuff in London felt like it was meant to intimidate, to put subjects “in their place”.
I visited the zoo. It’s a pleasant walk from the city centre.
Linguistic confusion at the zoo: “Flusspferde” literally means “River horses” which seems like it should mean something like “sea horse” but actually means “hippopotamus” because the English “hippopotamus” comes from the Greek ἱπποπόταμος (“river horse”) out of pretentious upper class snobbery or something.
This is the first time I’ve seen cattle in a zoo. Are they really so difficult for people to see otherwise? I guess they must be.
Lippenbär (Sloth Bear) look like dogs, border collies if anything (mainly the face and ears, but their claws do look sloth-like). This particular one is going back and forth on a single line in their enclosure, I would say stressed and/or bored if I dared anthropomorphise them. Definitely not slothful.
There was a semi-decapitated pigeon outside one of the bear enclosures. It looks like the same kind of bear in all but one of the bear enclosures, so I’m not sure if it really was a Lippenbär that I just saw.
The zoo has four wolves, that I can see, and they totally fail to acknowledge humans howling. Quite possibly because everyone howls at them and they’re bored of it. A bunch of English school kids showed up at the same time as I did, some thought they looked like foxes and started singing “What Does The Fox Say”, while another pair of kids had this conversion:
Kid 1) Would you like to pet a wolf?
Kid 2) No
Kid 1) Why?
The souvenir shop sells toys of fictitious animals. That’s not going to help educate people! They also sold an enormous range of lenticular 3D postcards — that stuff’s getting cheap.
I bought a Berliner. In Berlin. By asking for “eine Berliner”. It is, as far as I can tell, a filled doughnut. I’m sure everyone reading this will have heard about the famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
The walk home took me past a semi-ruined-semi-repaired church, past the only boring empty concrete square I’ve seen in the city, through a middle-class shopping mall with a giant indoor pond, around a fancy shopping mall, and on to the Wittenbergplatz U-bahn station, which is rather impressive and in its own traffic island. Berlin underground lines often run one or two stories above ground, and their surface lines often run underground. There are many good views.
A successful exploration of a fine city. Next up was going to be Hamburg and from there to Denmark, but I changed my mind once I reached Hamburg…